MATT TAYLOR didn’t know one single thing about Chinese. Inside the cab on the way back to her place he was thinking a hell of a lot about it though. The two of them sat on the cold leather seats and no one said a word. Nothing was said and the rain fell down gently outside and slid down and then across the windows. Inside there was just the heat and the silence. It was just the way he thought it should always be. Yes, it’s just the way you always wanted it, he was beginning to tell himself. This started to help him to forget all about the Chinese words. Be quiet, be quiet please. Yes, he told himself. Don’t ruin this now, he was telling himself. Don’t you ruin any of this thing. Don’t you dare be dumb now after there has been so much work put into making this all go so good.
Across the seat, the girl was sitting very still. She wasn’t his girl. She was still very pretty to him, and sweet enough. The girl hadn’t moved since the cab started off up north cutting across Canal and up Mulberry in the rain.
When the cab moved past NYU, the two of them both stared out and onto the dark blackness of Washington Square Park. At night the whole park looked empty under the bright lights that surrounded and fenced it in. There is no one ever walking through this park at night. At this time it stays reserved for pick-pockets, small time dope dealers and assorted other savages needing a fix but without the hardware to do more than stab you if they really needed it. All the same, you didn’t dare go in there at night. Matt Taylor had walked through it in the daytime plenty of times on his way to cafes with one girl or another. He was thinking about this now as they passed it through a stream of lights up University Place. During the day it is still pretty ugly, but has a nice fountain and a large, white arch that’s been there since the 1800’s or something like that and enough trees in the summer to look just good enough if you blink when you pass by on your way west to the Village. But you couldn’t see any of this now though the hard, dark falling rain.
After you get past Washington it isn’t long before you run right into another park at Union Square. At night the lamps hide what a dirty park this one really is. It is much nicer park than Washington, but that isn’t saying much. That is what Matt was telling himself as the cab drove up Park Avenue. Yes, we have lots of dirty parks, he thought. Clean streets and dirty parks. Yes we must have tons of dirty parks and not one you would dare run through at night. I wonder, he thought then, if the mayor even knows about Tompkins Square?
All of this was helping him keep the silence. He watched the five white globes on each lamp post shimmer in the rain as they drove on and he looked at how the lamps made a good, pretty scene out of the dirty show underneath them. Yes, just look at the lights, he was talking to himself again. There isn’t a single light on the Gandhi statue across the way. Gandhi doesn’t need lights or people or anything when he has those flowers to make him warm and clean. The lights are reserved for the nicer things like the market area and the trees. They light up the trees around Union Square and it seems like a real nice picture from a black and white postcard of Paris at night. Yes, it could be just like a postcard, he smiled to himself. If you pretend hard enough it looks just like that until you move further north and look back at the bare trees lit up like some dirt-gray forest and it gives away what a bad show the whole thing really is.
All of this thinking was good and made Matt Taylor smile in the darkness. He hadn’t been thinking too much before and now he knew it was good to not start thinking too much this late in the day. He watched her still looking out of the window into the darkness with her hands on her lap and her long black hair falling down her back. She had been much more talkative at the restaurant. There she had been all talk and smiles. The waiters knew her and she didn’t stop talking to them and ordering food. She ate very well and acted so delicate with the napkin in her lap. He ate too and the food was good and better than all the fancier Chinese restaurants in his neighborhood. They had eaten a lot of things he had never seen before and didn’t know the names of and couldn’t remember what was what but they were all very good and even the ones that didn’t taste so great were good to him because of their newness and the way she smiled at him when she pronounced their names slowly for him so he could remember them. He ate and watched her but was lost in a sea of words he didn’t understand. After a while at the table he had stopped thinking about the food or the waiters or how they looked at her or really much of anything. He had stopped this when he started the thinking about exactly how she would look naked and how she could taste as a whole mess of dirty but very lovely things went running through his head.
Pretty hands in the lap. Those ideas were back and yes, he told himself, now he was really thinking. This didn’t help him behave at all. How pretty a hand can look in your lap, he told himself. Her hands were on her lap now. My hands, oh where do I put my hands? Not on hers. No, not yet. It is all too soon for that. He tried to think about the parks passing behind the cab window. Very few girls can understand the urgency of life or the first thing about hands in laps. She looked very innocent and simple to him staring out the window like that and he knew she must have no way of knowing about these things. No, she must definitely not. So he pretended he didn’t either and sat there and tried to be still like a stupid kid in big, quiet church.
Matt Taylor put his hands in his own lap as the cab moved up Park and passed Gramercy Park. Gramercy Park is off of Park Avenue to the east and is a nice, clean well-lit private park and nothing at all like Union Square. There aren’t many lights on the square but the ones they have are old antique ones with a tiny orange flame and dimmed down low. This is how you kept hidden what was inside the park. They don’t let the public in Gramercy and this is probably why. You can’t keep a thing clean if any and everyone is running up inside it. It stays guarded and locked and only the rich can play there while you walk by and stare. Matt Taylor was smiling at this idea. It reminded him of something he had read last Saturday at the doctor’s office in The New Yorker in a book review of a story about a geisha girl. It was a book the entire island of Manhattan had read that summer. Matt Taylor hadn’t read it but was thinking he should after the good review and all those exotic things it talked about.
The lights are dimmer on Gramercy but you can still see the rain falling from them. Their cab was on Park though and the lights were bright and hurt a little in the wetness. The car was past 28th Street and she still sat there and stared out the window. This is always the way the first time, he was telling himself. It doesn’t much matter when you know that. Well, sometimes they talk you to death, or near it, and there is always that too. But mostly it is just the silence. There is silence, then the next thing or another, then the kiss, then the other silence that isn’t sleeping or quiet and then real sleep and if you’re lucky the silence for good until morning. Other times it’s the drinks first at a bar, then the check after round and round of chatter and you nod and say yes a hell of a lot and the talking leads to leaving in the cold holding hands to make it official and then the apartment and the silence and the never call again silence that helps you sleep better the next night.
The cab crossed off of Park to the east. She had stopped staring out of the window. Without saying a word or looking she moved across the cold seat next to him and touched his hand as her head fell to his shoulder. The smooth, hot quiet was still there. It is nice now, Matt Taylor thought, and we don’t have to talk for once and see it’s ok and see her head on your shoulder. Look, see her hair smooth and long way down to your lap and her mouth closed and well, if no hand, then hair on your lap is still something. Out of the rain-streaked window was the old, big cathedral of St. Barts on the right and there was no traffic on the soaked streets. Yes, just look out of the window, he talked to himself calmly again as all the wild pictures started to reel again inside his head.
Then the girl looked up at him. He smiled down at her. Her eyes were big and round and he thought this must be it.
“In a minute,” she said softly.
He kept smiling after that for some time, thinking that this really could be it as he looked out the window and watched the rain streak down.
“Are you always so sure about things,” she said after a while without looking up.
“Do you usually know where you are?”
“Sure, I think I do.”
“I knew you were sure. I just knew it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re sure you’re here, right? You’re sure you’re really with me?”
“Do you? Are you sure you’re here with me?”
“Do you ever have the hideous notion that you’re dreaming when you’re awake?”
“I don’t know. Maybe sometimes.”
“What do you think when you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me, please.”
“That it’s not so hideous really I guess.”
“But you know it right?”
“And what do you do?”
“I sit there.”
“What do you think then?”
“That I had too much today already, and too much to drink tonight.”
Matt Taylor looked out the window and ran his hand across the door and then the warm, wet window and dreamed about what she had underneath her coat and skirt. She must have something, she must. But it was real nice for him to go on thinking she had nothing at all.
“You seemed so sure at the restaurant.”
“What?” He said and woke up a bit.
“Yeah you were real sure then.”
“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Of course you were supposed to, and I liked it a lot.”
“Yes, very much. You were being so brave for me.”
“All I did was eat those mussels with the soy sauce.”
“Yes I know.”
“And that green mustard too.”
“You were real brave about it. Didn’t care who stared did you?”
“It was some weird food. I never had that at a Chinese restaurant before.”
“Yes, and you ate it all very well and didn’t mind a thing, not even them staring like dogs did you.”
“They were all staring real good though.”
“Yes, you were very good about the whole thing.”
“You were so brave, I loved it,” she said.
“All I did was eat.”
“You had no way of knowing how brave it was.”
“It was all in Chinese.”
“You have no way of knowing,” she said.
“Hell, it was in Chinese.”
“You wouldn’t know and that is why it was good to have you there.”
“You knew all of those waiters?”
“Not really,” she said and looked up at him and then back down to the floor.
“I don’t mind you speaking in Chinese, really. It sounded kinda nice.”
“Good,” she said. “Maybe someday it can be our own little secret.”
Then Matt Taylor heard the rain falling outside again for the first time in a long while. They had moved east across Lexington, cutting up Third Avenue towards the fifties. So what, he said to himself. So hell is what. She was there with him and there were a hell of a lot of stares and at one time she had lived down there. But she was as pretty a girl as any of the ones on the make-up posters outside the restaurants down there or over on the side alley streets where all those haircut places were next to the dirty tea shops. Yes she was that pretty. She was damn cute and had long black shiny hair and a pale, smooth face with big round brown eyes and had learned English so good you couldn’t tell she was any different than any American one.
When he had met her on the airplane from San Francisco two months ago she was tanned and perfect and was on her way back to East Broadway in Chinatown sixth floors up to a small studio. He didn’t know what she did except something like an import-export business. A lot of people do that, especially the Arabs he knew. It made a hell of a lot of sense and made Matt Taylor wish there was something to export back home to Kansas.
“You have no idea, do you,” she whispered softly from his shoulder.
“Why they stared at you and me.”
“I didn’t think they were staring.”
“You’re brave,” she said and curled up closer to his body.
“Yes, you’re real brave for me.”
”No. Remember, I thought I was dreaming.”
“That’s cute. But it’s very nice that you had no way of knowing.”
He sat there and listened to the rain and watched it sliding down the window and started to stroke her hair as the cab driver slowed into the next light.
“They all knew me, you know.”
“Well, I guessed.”
“From when I used to live down there.”
“Yes, they talked a whole lot. Wondered who the hell they thought I was.”
“That is why it’s nice to be with you. You’re the only one with no idea.”
“What, was one of them your boyfriend?”
“No, I would never go out with them like that.”
“You know I don’t care about that down there.”
“Do you care who I am?”
“Sure, why not. I’m here, aren’t I?.”
“That doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Don’t worry about them. They just stared because you’re very pretty, that’s all.”
“I don’t care about it.”
“Do you care about me?”
“I’m here aren’t I,” he said.
“I said that doesn’t mean a thing.”
“You’re just awfully pretty, that’s all.”
“I would stare too,” he told her.
“You are incredibly sweet and brave but it’s worse than that.”
“So what could really be so bad, Laura?”
“That my name isn’t Laura is bad.”
“What do they call you in Chinese then.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Fine, just leave it there then.”
“I’m not the same girl. See, Now I live on the Upper East side.”
“You’ll see what a nice studio I have now. I decorated it all myself.”
“Fine. You don’t have to explain.”
“I just used it see. I’m not that girl they knew.”
“Fine. Shhh, just don’t say anything,” he said to quiet her down.
“I’m not like her at all,” she whispered. “I’m not her at all and I don’t even go down there anymore except to eat and shop sometimes.”
“It’s ok,” he said rubbing her hair.
“No, you have no idea.”
“I said it was all ok.”
“You’ll hate me, you’ll hate me, I know you will hate me.”
“I couldn’t hate you,” he said with no idea of a single thing about the Chinese and pushed his fingers deeper through her hair.
“You will and I need someone here now not hating me.”
The driver had started watching the two of them in the backseat through the mirror. Then they both went quiet again as the car pushed up north into the eighties.
“But you also think you’re dreaming sometimes?” she said after a while.
“Yes, after all the drinking, sure.”
“Is that all?”
“Or at work, when I dream of a different job, something that matters you know.”
“Yes. Any other times?”
“And sometimes late at night with lots of rain and fog it can seem like a dream sure enough.”
“But I feel this way in the morning.”
“You’re an odd one girl,” he said.
“Yes, but don’t be rude about it.”
“I didn’t mean to be.”
“Fine but be gentle to me.”
“No, I really admire it,” he went on, looking out the window and knew then why you don’t wish for silences to end.
“I said gentle,” she whispered as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
“Just hold me now, please.”
Nobody was on the street and the taxi came into the nineties and turned right onto York Avenue and north towards her street. It was silent again and the niceness and the smoothness was back and a tide of dark, wet calm went over him. Things could be ok and maybe better than ok if this lasted, he told himself. He could not tell then, but he thought he heard her crying. It was a soft, small cry and her breathing was strange. He went on rubbing her head, feeling the softness of her long hair. He hadn’t ruined anything and the silence could always last if you were patient enough and didn’t put your hands anywhere they weren’t supposed to be before they were supposed to be there. He always thought girls looked wonderful crying, some even better than when they were not. So he worked to keep his hands on her head by imagining her face crying. She did look wonderful like this. Now he was really dreaming. It was a good, easy dream and he varied everything and really owned it and drifted off for a while in the quiet cab.
Without looking up she whispered again. He couldn’t hear a thing but the tires on the wet street.
“Did you say something?”
“There is no way of saying it,” she said a little louder.
“I can’t hear you.”
“I said,” she whispered louder then sat up and put her mouth to his ear. Her cheeks were wet and he knew this was really it like the way he had been imagining her ever since he first saw her on the flight that day.
“They were staring at me, because they were secretly wishing me gone,” she stopped. Her breath was warm and calm now and good on his ear.
“I was a working down there. You know that? You know what I mean, don’t you. I had to. I had to,” she said a little louder into his ear. “I was making money down there being so dirty and awful about everything and never loving it but doing it just the same.”
His head was gone out the window. The wheels were squealing on the wet pavement but he didn’t hear a single sound as the driver slowed down into the turn.
“When I left they all knew it and now those waiters act like they never wanted me at all.”
The cab stopped in front of her building. The driver was looking at them again in the mirror and Matt quickly pulled money out of his front pocket and helped her out. The two of them stood there in the rain as the cars rushed past.
“You hate me now don’t you?”
“No. I mean,” he stopped himself. ”No.”
“Every guy does. I was even engaged once until he knew.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“You can. But that isn’t me now. I’m not that girl. I don’t have to be now.”
“Ok,” was all he could say so he stood there getting wet as he shut his mouth right up.
“You can hate me if you want.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“You can, I think you can and it’s ok.”
“You didn’t know at all?”
“No, not a bit.”
“See, I’m not that girl now.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Yes, you didn’t even know.”
“I was so good wasn’t I? You didn’t even know. And you don’t hate me.”
“You were fine.”
“That is why it was nice, you being down there not one of them and being so brave.”
The rain was coming down cold as the taxi drove off. The wind wasn’t blowing and the rain was falling straight down on the man and the girl as they stood there and it soaked his jacket and rained through her hair till it clung to her face like a tight black shawl. Her makeup was pouring down now too, and the black of it ran down her pale, whitish cheeks. He thought she was crying good and hard now but with the rain you couldn’t be sure. All he could think is that is why he had sat there in the silence and tried to be good like a fool just to hear this. This is why you kept your hands to yourself.
“Do you want to come up.”
“I don’t think I should, you know.”
“Will you be ok?”
“I just don’t want to be alone now.”
“But I told you I don’t expect you to like me much now.”
“I think I like you just fine.”
She looked beautiful wet like that to him. He stood quiet and the silence came again as they stared at each another under the street lamps. She was crying now for real and the rain wasn’t hiding it.
“Why did you go back there then?”
“You said you wanted real Chinese food.”
“Ok,” he said and reached out to hold her hands.
“The food was good right?”
“But there are other places.”
“It is the best though. You liked it right?”
“Yeah, it was just fine.”
“It’s really the best.”
“But you didn’t have to take me there.”
“You get used to it by now anyway,” she said wiping her face.
“You mean you get used to a thing like that?”
“I guess so. I just can’t ever seem to get used to being alone.”
He held her in the rain. This is why you keep you hands to yourself was all he could think. They were both soaked through as the wind picked up and he led her across the street and they walked upstairs to her new apartment.
“I’ll show you how nice I made everything look,” she told him in the staircase.
“I’m sure it’s great.”
“I’m sure it’s just perfect.”
“You’ll love it and we can sleep in late and spend all of tomorrow together.”
“That sounds just fine,” he said.
“And maybe I won’t have to dream for at least another day.”